The time has finally come as it’s the end of the 2023 preseason. Soon the Detroit Lions will make their roster cuts and get a week of preparation before they start the season on Thursday, September 7 against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Before they can focus on Kansas City, they need to focus on the Carolina Panthers and figure out who will make the team. Detroit lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, and beat the New York Giants in the preseason opener, while the Panthers have yet to win a preseason game, losing to the New York Jets and Giants.
The records of the preseason are meaningless, but it’s still a good thing for these teams to walk away winners and use that confidence to propel them into the regular season. The other big thing about this game is that it’s the final attempt for some of these players to ever make another NFL team in their careers. There are position battles all over the team and if a player can impress the coaches in the last game before the roster cuts, it could be enough to get them over the hump.
There were a lot of players to choose from for the watch list in the preseason finale, but these five stood out to me the most. Some are in roster battles to make the team, others might have the leg up and most likely will make the team but need to show one more performance to lock it in. The final player is a wildcard as the teams' decision could be either way. Let’s go through the five players I am talking about why don’t we?
RB Craig Reynolds
Last season, running back Craig Reynolds was in a roster battle and it was a focal point on “Hard Knocks.” This year he came into the season as the leader in the third-string running back battle, but it wasn’t for long. The Lions signed Justin Jackson, who was the top competitor to Reynolds for that spot, and with Reynolds getting injured in training camp, Jackson seemed to have possibly taken the lead at the position. Weeks later, Jackson abruptly retired and opened the competition back up.
There have been many players fighting for this spot and despite missing the first preseason game, it appears Reynolds is back in the driver's seat for the third-string running back job. He didn’t do well against the Jaguars last week with only eight carries for 13 yards, but the fact he was given the most carries says something. What also seems to be a telling sign that the job is most likely his was his performance in practice on Tuesday, and a solid performance against the Panthers could eliminate the others from the job and give it to Reynolds.
WR Antoine Green
A position that has been up for grabs all preseason long is the fifth wide receiver spot. With Jameson Williams out for the first six games of the year, the Lions will need someone to step up. There hasn’t been much separation for this job as wide receiver Antoine Green, Dylan Drummond, Chase Cota, and Maurice Alexander are all the finalists for the job. Each one of these players has had some nice moments in the preseason and in training camp, but none have been able to make it consistent enough to hold the lead.
Green appears to be the only 2023 drafted player that might not make the 53-man roster. His preseason started well with three catches for 36 yards against the Giants, but he only had one catch for 18 yards against the Jaguars. A strong game against Carolina could make it so the seventh-rounder sneaks his way onto the team, but a poor performance could spell a demotion to the practice squad for Green.
Green has the potential to make the roster next season if he is on the practice squad this year. He has the talent to play in the NFL, and the front office believes that. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have drafted him back in April. Drummond could be in the lead for the job right now, but if Green is able to have a dynamite game against the Panthers, he could make the coaches debate on who shouldn’t make the team so Green can.
CB Steven Gilmore
The position that saw the most changes in the offseason was at cornerback. The Lions signed Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley to give them two starting-level cornerbacks on the team. Moseley is currently not practicing with the team and just doing drills on the sidelines so his return is currently unknown. With that, the Lions are needing some help at the position and a player who could provide that with Moseley out is Steven Gilmore.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because his brother is Dallas Cowboys cornerback Stephon Gilmore. While Stephon has a roster spot locked up, his brother will be fighting for one in Charlotte, North Carolina against the Panthers. Steven has had some flashes of good play in the preseason, getting two total tackles against the Giants, and three total tackles, two pass deflections, and an interception against the Jaguars.
Steven will be going up against Khalil Dorsey, Colby Richardson, and technically other players on the team outside of his position to make this roster. The Lions could decide to only carry six cornerbacks in Sutton, Jerry Jacobs, Chase Lucas, Will Harris, Brian Branch, and Starling Thomas V if Moseley is going to miss a short amount of time. If Detroit knows Moseley will be out longer, they could plan on picking up a seventh cornerback in Steven while Moseley recovers. A big game against the Panthers on Friday could have the front office thinking about how to use the last spot on the team and how Moseley's timeline for recovery impacts it.
DT Benito Jones
A player who is having a quiet, but good preseason is defensive tackle Benito Jones. With all of the defensive line chatter focusing on the defensive ends, not much has been talked about the big men in between them. Isaiah Buggs and Alim McNeill are most likely the starters, and 2023 third-round pick Brodric Martin seems to be making the roster as well, there is a little battle going on with the number four defensive tackle spot.
Levi Onwuzurike returned to camp injury-free and has been playing well this preseason, making it harder for Jones to make the roster. So far this preseason, Jones has two total tackles and 1.5 sacks. The stats aren’t jumping off the page, but the effort is there and Jones could be able to crack the roster as the team's fourth defensive tackle if he can make some noise against the Panthers on Friday.
Like Green, if Jones doesn’t make the roster, then the practice squad is calling his name. Jones can still be an injury away from getting called up and having a chance to contribute for the Lions. What is also difficult for Jones is that some defensive ends like John Cominsky and Josh Paschal can play inside at tackle and take away reps and a roster spot over Jones. Since Jones isn’t able to bounce outside, that kind of flexibility could make it difficult for him to make the team if he doesn’t have a monster performance in the preseason finale.
FB Jason Cabinda
The final player here is one that hasn’t been talked about pretty much the entire training camp and preseason, fullback Jason Cabinda. The offense didn’t use Cabinda much last season, as he had only one catch for 5 yards and one carry for 4 yards. What Cabinda does well though is play special teams and that will be something the team debates next Monday night as the roster decisions are going down to the wire. What is more impactful for this team overall: a fullback who can play special teams, a sixth cornerback, or a fifth or even sixth wide receiver? Perhaps a third quarterback or fourth running back makes more sense in the end.
Cabinda hasn’t done much in the preseason so far this year as he only has a catch for 9 yards. His receiving skills need some work as he has dropped some easy throws, but again catching the ball isn’t his strong suit. He is known as a special teams player and as a former linebacker, he knows how to lay out some hits. The offense doesn't use the fullback position often and at that point, he is more of just a special teams position instead of a fullback.
Cabinda might not get many chances against the Panthers on Friday, but he needs to take advantage of every chance he is allowed to step on the field. Whether he is asked to block for a running back on a run, run out and catch a pass, or grab the ball himself and run for a few yards, he has to prove his worth. To me, you can play special teams all fine and well, but you need to be able to do more than just special teams unless you are a kicker, punter, return man, or long snapper. If other players at other positions are expected to play their position well AND special teams to make the roster, then so should Cabinda.